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Tensions flared in Harvard’s African and African American Studies Department this week after a professor proposed a forum to discuss potential partnerships with local police departments.
In an email to colleagues earlier this month, AAAS professor Doris Sommer invited faculty to a discussion of “activities that link Harvard to local communities beyond the University” in response to nationwide protests against police brutality. Since the murder of George Floyd, a Black man, at the hands of the Minneapolis police on May 25, thousands of Americans have pushed for a greater public reckoning with anti-Black racism.
“Among the questions we might consider is how best to partner with community service inside the Cambridge/Boston Police Department, and perhaps how to participate in educational initiatives inside police academies and training centers,” Sommer wrote in her email.
Sommer also invoked “student voices” as part of the motivation for hosting the conversation.
At the forum on Monday, which took place on Zoom, a number of graduate students protested both the possibility of partnering with the police and Sommer’s reference to “student voices” on the issue.
Though the students remained anonymous — obscuring their video and using pseudonyms — they identified themselves as a “coalition” of graduate students in the AAAS Department and across the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences. In total, around 80 individuals attended the forum on Monday.
During the meeting, members of the group repeatedly pasted text from and links to a letter they had authored on the issue in the Zoom chat function.
“We are deeply disturbed to learn of a communication from faculty in our department, African and African American Studies (AAAS), proposing partnership with the Cambridge/Boston Police Departments,” the letter read. “We want to be very clear that this is not the sort of action student voices are calling for.”
The letter also advocated for AAAS and the Faculty of Arts and Sciences to instead “commit resources” to four local organizations and sever all ties with the Harvard, Cambridge, and Boston police departments.
“That our department, which was born out of a moment of civil unrest very similar to the one we are experiencing today, or any of its members, would consider collaborating with law enforcement institutions is shocking and misguided,” the letter read. “This discussion stands in the face of all that we have been taught and all that our department claims to stand for.”
Sommer said in an interview Tuesday that her email “probably should have been phrased differently.” She said she included the reference to collaboration with police academies to “ground the invitation in an experience” that she knew had occurred in other cities.
“That opportunity doesn't seem to be on the table anymore,” Sommer said.
Nevertheless, Sommer said she did not think the protest was “necessary.”
“I understand the tone of the protest and the purpose of the protest, but from my position as a convener of an open meeting for faculty, I don't think that the student protest was necessary,” she said. “My intention was to convene a group of like-minded faculty members to explore what we can and should be doing as a community.”
AAAS Professor Walter Johnson said he supported the students’ efforts at the meeting and in an emailed statement Tuesday.
“Their entry into the meeting was dramatic, and while it seemed as if some of my colleagues were put off by that, I thought it produced a good discussion of very important issues,” he wrote.
Johnson wrote that the clash between students and faculty at the meeting was indicative of “two fundamentally different approaches” to issues of police brutality.
“How to reform police departments? Or how to dismantle them?” Johnson wrote of the two paths.
“For what it is worth, I do not think that the faculty of AAAS are all on the same side of this question,” Johnson added. “This is not simply a divide between faculty and students in the department or in the university at large.”
Sommer said she did not think there was a difference of opinion between herself, other faculty, and the students. She said she favors the abolition of police departments over reform but believes it must occur “in stages.”
“I don't think there was a difference of position,” Sommer said. “I think we were all involved in a moment of frustration among the students.”
Though the conversation continued for over an hour, faculty vowed to postpone a full discussion of the issues at hand until AAAS department chair Tommie Shelby could be present at the meeting.
Sommer said the number of faculty who attended the event was “promising” for future efforts. She said she hoped the faculty would also discuss possible educational initiatives and other community partnerships in later conversations.
“It was heartening to see people from a variety of disciplines come together so that we can think together,” she said. “I hope we'll be able to convene that in the future, and students will be rooting us on rather than worried about what we're doing.”
—Staff writer Camille G. Caldera can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @camille_caldera.
—Staff writer Olivia G. Oldham can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter at @allpalaver.
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